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Women and conflict

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST

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K.S. SUBRAMANIAN

Speaking Peace: Women's Voices from Kashmir edited by Urvashi Butalia; Kali for Women, 2002; pages 316, Rs.350.

THE overwhelming desire for peace on the part of women and the more specific and compelling desire of women's groups from Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India to come together for a better understanding of each other's needs and aspirations constitute the main thread that unites the several moving essays, including a photo essay, collected in this volume. A photo exhibition in New Delhi on the plight of Kashmiri women some time ago brought forth interesting and positive responses from the viewers. The responses reinforced the desire and need on the part of these women's groups, indicating the growing strength and self-awareness of women's movements in India. Women's groups that have emerged in Jammu and Kashmir have been too subject to patriarchal mores to organise themselves for social action at the village level as women's groups in the northeastern States, for example, have done. However, the women of Jammu and Kashmir have increasingly articulated a pressing need for an across-the-board dialogue among all groups to help find a peaceful solution to the collective crisis that afflicts the State. However, developments in the State indicate that it is the state machinery that is not interested in promoting dialogue. Therefore, as noted by Yoginder Sikand and Krishna Mehta, the State remains extremely polarised, in sharp contrast to the 'secular and mixed tradition' of the past. The editor hopes that the very publication of these essays would, in some way, promote a climate for a dialogue towards peace and reconciliation. It is when no alternatives seem to be in sight that an alternative may perhaps be expected to take shape!

While Kashmir has been central to political discussions in India, the impact on women and children of the ongoing conflict in the State has received little or no attention. There are no precise estimates, official or non-official, of the number of women widowed or children orphaned. Resounding official silence has attended a recent revelation by a BBC correspondent that the number of children orphaned by conflict in the State was of the order of a hundred thousand and that most of them are engaged in child labour. In this context, the recent initiative by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to look at the impact of armed conflict on children in States such as Jammu and Kashmir, Manipur, Tripura and Nagaland is to be welcomed. One study in respect of Jammu and Kashmir is in progress and others are to follow. The Government of India has not undertaken similar studies although India is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Urvashi Butalia's study shows how more than a decade of conflict has deeply affected people's livelihood, their living environments, health, eating habits, their work and workplaces, their access to education and so on. It is the women of Kashmir who have felt the impact most severely. Yet not much is being written about their response to the conflict. The volume documents the experiences of a wide range of women in coping with the impact of the conflict on their lives and raises relevant questions regarding their coping strategies and the options before them. Interviews with Kashmiri women, personal reflective pieces, excerpts from various reports and books, a photo essay, journalistic dispatches and a socialistic excerpt on the rights and privileges promised to women in the Naya Kashmir Manifesto adopted by the National Conference in 1984 are among the contents of the volume.

The author in her sensitive and insightful introduction traces the historical background to the conflict situation in the State. The aim of the volume is to look at the impact of the recent years of conflict on women's lives as part of an Oxfam project on violence mitigation and amelioration. It is also the outcome of a workshop on Women in Kashmir, organised by a New Delhi-based non-governmental organisation. Women rarely initiate conflict but along with their children are its main victims. Although the Kashmir conflict has generated a vast literature on national security little of it relates to women's lives and concerns. The conflict has created a large number of widows, 'half-widows' (those whose husbands have disappeared with no proof of whether they are dead or alive), mothers who have lost their sons, or those whose daughters have been subjected to rape, young women who dare not step out of the house, women who have been pushed out of employment by the fear and uncertainty of conflict and women who suffer from medical and psychological conditions related to stress and trauma. Conflict can also push women into the public sphere, nudging them to carve out a space for themselves and their humanitarian demands such as locating the 'disappeared' men.

The Oxfam project adopted a two-pronged approach. One involved conducting detailed interviews with the women affected by conflict (Pamela Bhagat in the volume); and the other involved working with locally based groups, holding workshops on stress and trauma and collecting quantitative data on the number of families affected, number of children out of school, number of widows who have received assistance and so on (Sahba Hussain). Stress, trauma, depression, spontaneous abortions and miscarriages are common. The conflict has created a situation of tremendous fear and uncertainty in the lives of women in Kashmir. Another consequence of conflict has been the increasing distrust even amongst family members and growing domestic violence.

Several essays in the volume refer to the problem of the involvement of women's groups from outside in working with Kashmiri women. Autonomous activist groups have been reluctant to get involved in the State's electoral politics. This is perhaps on account of a perceived clash of competing nationalisms - Indian and Kashmiri. The fact that the women's movement in India has not undertaken a full-scale critique and analysis of the role of the Indian state has, in its own way, created ambivalences for mainstream women's Indian groups working in Jammu and Kashmir, where separatist demands exist. Further, the activity of women's groups is often confined to the Valley and work in the area of human rights violations by security forces. More recently, the plight of the Pandit women displaced from the Valley has become an important focus for women's groups working in Jammu and Kashmir. But there is still a certain reluctance to get involved with the problems faced by women associated with the security forces or militant groups, whether as wives, daughters or mothers. In a conflict situation, building trust with those one works with is a complicated process that slows down the process of engagement.

Women perceive peace as a condition free of any kind of violence in society. This implies the co-existence of all people with basic human dignity. This concept of peace begins with one's immediate family and goes on to cover the whole region, country and the world. When there is violence in society, women feel its impact first. Therefore, women must play a decisive role in negotiating the peace process. In order to make this possible, they must be empowered politically, economically and represented adequately at all levels of decision-making. However, state and non-state agencies make no effort to involve women in peace processes. They ignore the impact of conflict on women and marginalise their needs and aspirations.

Mainstreaming gender as a major human rights priority becomes complicated when a technocratic and masculine concept of 'national security' dominates the discourse on conflict-affected areas such as Jammu and Kashmir. An alternative concept of 'human security' has acquired salience in recent global discussions on development. The Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has noted that 'human security' is the key idea in "comprehensively seizing all the menaces that threaten the survival, daily life and dignity of human beings and to strengthening the efforts to confront these threats". As Urvashi Butalia points out, these menaces are nowhere more sharply active than in the strife-torn State of Jammu and Kashmir. She must be complimented for the sensitivity with which the trauma and travails of the women of this most beautiful but also perhaps the most unfortunate State of India has been documented.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 08, 2002.)

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